DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia in 2017 laid the groundwork for momentous change next year, defying its conservative reputation for slow, cautious reforms by announcing plans to let women drive, allow movie theaters to return and to issue tourist visas. The kingdom could even get a new king.
King Salman and his ambitious 32-year-old son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have upended decades of royal family protocol, social norms and traditional ways of doing business. They bet instead on a young generation of Saudis hungry for change and a Saudi public fed up with corruption and government bureaucracy.
Here’ a look at the major pivots of the past year and the reforms to come in 2018:
WOMEN START DRIVING
In a surprise late-night announcement, Saudi Arabia announced in September that it would finally lift a ban on women driving , becoming the last country in the world to allow women to get behind the wheel. Activists had been arrested for driving since 1990, when the first driving campaign was launched by women who drove cars in the capital, Riyadh.
In June, the kingdom plans to begin issuing licenses to women, even allowing them to drive motorcycles, according to local reports. It will be a huge change for women who have had to rely on costly male drivers or male relatives to get to work or school or to run errands and visit friends.
In 2018, women will also be allowed to attend sporting matches in national stadiums, where they were previously banned. Designated “family sections” will ensure women are separate from male-only quarters of the stadiums. The crown prince tested public reaction to the move when he allowed women and families into the capital’s main stadium for National Day celebrations this year.
MOVIE THEATERS RETURN
After more than 35 years, movie theaters are returning to the kingdom. They were shut down in the 1980s during a wave of ultraconservatism. Many Saudi clerics view Western movies and even Arabic films as sinful.
The first theaters are expected to open in March. Previously, Saudis could stream movies online or watch them on satellite TV. To attend a cinema, though, they would have to travel to neighboring countries like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
The opening of cinemas will give families and young Saudis another way to kill time as the crown prince introduces more entertainment options to encourage local spending.
CONCERTS AND COMIC-CON
This past year, rapper Nelly and two Games of Thrones stars came to Saudi Arabia for the first time. John Travolta also visited the kingdom, meeting with fans and talking to them about the U.S. film industry.
It’s a notable shift from just a few years ago, when the religious police — known as the Muttawa — would shoo women out of malls for wearing bright nail polish, insist restaurants turn off music and break up gatherings where unrelated men and women were mixing.
The entertainment drive started earlier this year, with an all-male concert by Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu, which was both nostalgic and groundbreaking. He had not performed in Saudi Arabia since the late 1980s.
Saudi Arabia also held two Comic-Con events in major cities, where thousands of fans dressed up in their favorite action-hero costumes. Actors Julian Glover and Charles Dance — Grand Maester Pycelle and Tywin Lannister from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” — made an appearance at one. Rock music blared in the halls.
Read the rest of the story here: A year of historic change in Saudi Arabia, with more to come